Thursday, March 27, 2008

My Mama Taught Me Better

Than to invite people over and talk about politics, but after a week of politely waiting I am still itching to say one or two words about Barack Obama's race speech. I just can't stand it. Come back tomorrow if you don't want to hear it.

Many journalists are comparing Obama's speech to the likes of Martin Luther King's I have a Dream or Letter from the Birmingham Jail, or J.F. Kennedy's Houston Ministerial Address, asking whether it will stand alongside some of the memorable speeches on race. Maybe. I didn't get to hear or see the speech since we choose not to have television, though I did read the transcript. I thought it was a wonderfully open discourse on some of the racial problems plaguing our country. He did a fabulous job slipping out of the sticky Rev. Wright alliance question. Anyway.

What I do want to know . . .

Is whether he or a speech writer opened up the Bartlett's Familiar Quotations or The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations to pluck Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It's not even past." from the vast number of entries on the past, or whether he read Requiem for a Nun and remembered the line? Did he intend to evoke Faulkner's old south characters, miscegenation themes, and racial inequities to further his point? Did he know that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." used as it is in Requiem could also mean that Rev. Wright's words live on in him?

Does he really need the Sutpens, Bons, Coldfields, McCaslins, and Snopes hopping around behind his words? Do they change the spoken words?

Though I question, I do admire Barack Obama's well honed speech and . . .

his use of Faulkner. If he wanted to use Faulkner could a better Faulkner line be:
I believe man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he, alone among creatures, has an inexhaustible voice but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Taken out of context from Faulkner's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

The context of this statement is fear during and after World War II, but still what a lovely sentiment.


sheila said...

Well, at least you are more polite than Christopher Hitchens! ( He's very annoyed with Mr Obama.

Great quote by the way.

ZILLA said...

Very thoughtful, Wisteria. Good questions.

I hated that I missed the speech when it aired, but ended up glad I got to read it "as prepared" while I watched the video on You Tube.

I may be wrong, but I don't see Obama as a man who says or quotes much without considering the multiple ways words might be taken, in and out of context. I think that's one characteristic many lawyers share, whether they're born with it, or whether they develop the skill over time.

I've noticed lately even when he's speaking off the cuff, he's choosing words more slowly and carefully.

My mother, of course, recognized Faulkner right off the bat. I did not. Her take on the quote he chose, and her take on the speech in general, is that Obama, more than other candidates or political figures, assumes intelligence in his audience, which is a compliment, especially since so many politicians talk down to us.

After seeing/hearing the sound-bytes of Rev Wright's most incendiary line, "God **** America," in its full context, it seemed to me to be impassioned, angry rhetoric derived from feelings of love and empathy, rather than ... simply hateful, anti-American rhetoric. I can understand why he would have said the words he said, but if I were a preacher or other public figure I hope I would have chosen different words to impart the same meaning, because it's so easy for people to mistake the sentiment behind strong, offensive words. I don't think that blow-hard really hated or hates America. I think he loves America and has at times been extremely frustrated.

I do prefer your more inspiring Faulkner quote. The one Obama chose calls back to my mind the scene from his autobiography, where he's at his father's grave, reconciling a lifetime of confusion over his father's abandonment). It's a critical point in his life; a key moment in the development of his character, and it makes sense that he would return again and again to that moment. Many of us are called to review life-lessons, again and again.

And maybe this is the point from which springs so much idealism and hope? Who knows?

His mother deserves a lot of credit for instilling in him so deeply the value of education. Without her tremendous influence and support, I doubt he would be half as well-read or articulate.

If Rev Wright's words do live on in Obama, let's be glad they're living on in a man of broad vision and deep empathy who demonstrates rational thinking and even-temperedness, while understanding that culture is not static, but continually evolving. Let's be glad they live on within a man who favors & demonstrates, rather than an attitude of irresponsible anger and resentment, an attitude of responsible concern and hope.

(Your Mama was probably right. Can I get you an iced tea, or perhaps a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade?)

Kate in NJ said...

Good post Wisteria, I like your choice of Faulkner quote better as well.
I'll keep my Obama opinion to myself
as my Momma taught me,lol.;-)

JoVE said...

If you can't invite people into your own home to talk politics, where the hell can you talk politics with them?! Great post. I've not been following in detail. I should care more about who is going to run your country but since I have no say, I don't prioritize.

Zilla (or her mom) makes a good point about assuming an intelligent audience. And maybe we should generously assume that is his intent.

Wisteria said...

I'd love some iced tea. In fact, I'd be embarrassed to admit how much I've consumed today. I don't feel too bad about it though since I have eschewed Southern tradition by doing without the sugar.

The point of not talking politics in social gatherings is to make those with differing opinions uncomfortable. If you invited someone, you should treat them with respect and attempt to never make them uncomfortable. You can talk politics if you cleared the topic beforehand or go somewhere that politics is on the agenda.

I suppose many are annoyed by Obama, and many are asking the same questions as Christopher Hitchens, but I'm still psyched that he quoted Faulkner. I just want to know if it was accidental. That particular line is much quoted, though misused. I would just like to know if he has read Faulkner, seeks to invoke Faulkner, or like most people have a vague recognition that Faulkner exists and he should read or value his contribution to literature.

Does he write his own speeches??

I don't know, something about that line in the speech seemed amiss.

Wisteria said...

I should have said . . . you don't talk politics because you don't want to make your guests uncomfortable. Mama's going to think all her lessons went to waste. Thank goodness she is out of town.

JoVE said...

I think I understood that, but I also thought that you could take it another way. You could invite people to your home specifically to talk politics. You would invite those folks you know like a good discussion about politics, even if they disagree.

I think your contribution to that debate is interesting, whatever one thinks about Obama. It is a good question to ask. And I'm glad you asked it.

Wisteria said...

Sure, if everyone knows politics is on the agenda, then by all means discuss and disagree, but to catch people by surprise and have them trapped in your home with no way to politely excuse themselves from the conversation is a Southern Belle no-no.

ZILLA said...

"The North could stand to abide by a few more Southern Belle no-nos," said the payroll officer who came to work this Saturday morning in jeans and flannel, sleep in her eyes, not a trace of make-up, and with hair that's all kinds of mussed up :-)

My understanding is that generally speaking, Obama uses a speech writer like everyone else, but he made an exception for his speech on racism. I also understand that he did not use ghostwriters for his memoir or for the Audacity of Hope, but I have no idea how to verify those claims.

Reagan's former speech writer (Peggy Noonan, in case anyone cares to look it up) had some interesting words printed in the Wall Street Journal regarding Obabama's racism speech. Most of it was favorable, but there was a bit of criticism as well -- a nice balance, I think.